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Opinion The Paris paradox: Summit won’t succeed – or fail

Matthew Hoffmann is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs

We are hurtling toward a "big, defining moment" in the global response to climate change.

The international community is gathering in Paris for UN climate talks amid increasing hope and expectations for this latest "last chance to save the world." The necessity and allure of a big, defining moment is clear, but we must guard against potential pitfalls this can present for long-term efforts to address this most challenging of problems.

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We need big, defining moments. They serve as focal points that clarify the minds of politicians and the public, generating urgency and political will. They are opportunities for various countries to signal their intentions and commitments. They shape the direction and substance of the global response to climate change for years after the moments have passed. The annual UN negotiations have always played this laudable role, making the global response to climate change visible and tangible in a way that can foster momentum and action.

This gathering in Paris is a big, defining moment. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was merely a beginning that failed to fully deliver a climate solution, and the 2009 Copenhagen summit, the last big, defining moment, was widely considered to be a substantive disaster for addressing climate change. These disappointments are felt more acutely of late with the scientific community providing increasingly disconcerting analyses of the world's trajectory toward major climate disruptions.

Perhaps Paris will be different. All of the accoutrements of a big, defining moment are evident. Momentum and urgency are building, as evidenced by the Pope's encyclical, celebrities at the United Nations and mass marches around the world. Media coverage is ramping up. Countries are lining up their pledges and a growing number of provinces, cities and corporations are committing to act, as well. Hope and expectations are rising. A number of commentators and observers appear to feel like this is the best chance to finally get the response to climate change "right" and produce an agreement commensurate to the challenges we face.

But herein lies the paradox. Big, defining moments are necessary, but the critically important attention, urgency and political will they generate can lead us to forget that they are neither ultimate solutions to climate change when successful nor the dashing of our last hope when they disappoint.

No matter the outcome in Paris, countries, provinces, cities, corporations and the public must pursue significant and sustained efforts to respond to this enormous challenge. A breakthrough in Paris will be a wonderful stimulus, but addressing climate change is a long game of large-scale transformation of energy systems, economies and societies. Even if the negotiations are wildly successful, the deal that emerges will not be a solution to climate change. The summit will be useful only if the urgency, enthusiasm and grand intentions building around it (and the agreement reached) are translated into action. This is even more important to remember if the agreement reached in Paris fails to live up to increasingly high expectations.

The hope and urgency around Paris are eerily familiar for those who paid attention to the run-up to the 2009 negotiations. That summit became a big, defining disappointment when it failed to deliver. The perceived failure resulted in a serious malaise in the global response to climate change that lasted for years. Scientists tell us the window for avoiding the worst effects of climate change is narrow and we cannot afford a repeat of the

Copenhagen summit's aftermath. However much we hope that Paris will be a success, if it does disappoint, that will not be a catastrophe – a catastrophe would be allowing the global response to climate change to grind to a halt because of problems in an international negotiation process.

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Big, defining moments are a critical means to push the global response to climate change forward; they are not ends in themselves. Regardless of what is accomplished in Paris, the real work begins when everyone goes home.

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